UMATILLA — Italian style paninis and garlic kale dip might not be the first items someone imagines chowing down on in a school cafeteria. But a culinary workshop hosted by Umatilla High School last Friday is looking to change that.

The workshop was hosted by the the Oregon Department of Education Child Nutrition Programs and Oregon Dairy and Nutrition Council with involvement from the Oregon State University Extension office’s Food Hero campaign. It had cafeteria workers from across Eastern Oregon preparing an extensive menu of items with unique flavors that still align with national nutrition standards.

Jessica Visinsky, a child nutrition specialist with the ODE, who spearheaded the workshop, knows this is no easy feat.

“(Workers) are basically putting on Thanksgiving dinner every weekday by 11 a.m.,” she said.

This is the third year that the workshop, which travels across the state, has stopped in Umatilla.

Those who participated also honed their knife skills as they worked in different teams to prepare a large lunch for people wishing to sample the menu items, which ranged from veggie quesadillas to a sweet cinnamon apple bake.

Visinsky said there are some misconceptions when it comes to school lunches.

“We may be serving pizza in school, but it’s got whole grain crust and low-fat cheese,” she said.

Rikkilynn Starliper, child nutrition director for the Umatilla School District, said many parents don’t know that ready-to-serve items like chocolate milk and heat-and-serve items like quesadillas come from companies that specifically formulate them to meet national guidelines.

Countywide, almost 70% of students were eligible for free and reduced lunch during the 2018-19 school year, according to the ODE. That number increases to 80% of students throughout the district in Umatilla. Schools in the Umatilla district are unique in the sense that they take part in the USDA Community Eligibility Provision, which allows them to provide meals to students at no cost.

With so many students taking part in school lunch, fitting in scratch cooking like the kind taught during the workshop can prove difficult.

Starliper said that when the district first hosted a culinary workshop, they walked away with a popular Bánh mì recipe, but that they only offer it a couple times a month because it’s so labor intensive and in such high demand.

“It’s difficult to transition to scratch cooking when you have staff that have been doing the same thing for years,” she added.

Mary Smith, who works in the Clara Brownell Middle School cafeteria, noted that not much from the workshop gets to come to life in the kitchen.

“We do some scratch cooking, but not everything. There’s just too many kids,” she said.

Starliper said the district is hoping to include more scratch cooking in the future. The district has other culinary projects in store for the upcoming school year as well.

They just purchased four “healthy celebration” carts, which come loaded with the equipment needed to make smoothies during classroom celebrations.

“It’s easier for teachers and families to take that cart to the classroom. Instead of having cookies and cupcakes, the kids can bring in fruit, yogurt and granola and make a smoothie,” Starliper said.

She’s also looking forward to the addition of a FoodCorps member, who will focus on educating students about nutrition, to McNary Heights Cafeteria this year.

“She’s already decorating the cafeteria. My staff does’t have a lot of time to do that fun stuff,” Starliper said.

Umatilla schools weren’t the only ones prepping for the start of the school year.

Kayla Flores and Minnie Shoemaker traveled nearly two hours from North Powder to attend the workshop, and were looking forward to bringing the hummus recipe they learned back to their school to have teachers sample it.

“It’s nice being where everybody is doing the same things,” Flores said. “Everyone in our field is here. Down there, it’s just us — just me and Minnie. It’s nice to know more recipes.”

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